Have you ever experienced culture shock?
Seminar and lecture participants have asked this question numerous times. ….happens when deeply felt values are challenged… …Here are the three most memorable situations which caused culture shock.
Our eldest child was born in 1964 during our first overseas assignment in Frankfurt am Main. Hopi was surprised and offended when, as often happened, older German women would stop her on the street, shout at her and loudly criticize the way she was carrying the baby or the way she had him dressed. In our relatively egalitarian home culture such intrusive behavior by strangers would be considered incredibly rude and totally unacceptable.
Within a year or so we had learned enough about the culture to realize that such behavior was regarded as normal in Germany. At that time Hopi was 23 years old but looked much younger, more like a teenager. Germans in those days considered it normal for older people to publicly criticize the actions of young people. In a relatively hierarchical culture older people enjoy higher status and may feel free to tell their juniors what to do and what not to do. As for me, I happened to look older than my age (Hopi tells me, “You were born old.”) which is probably why I didn’t personally experience similar rudeness.
Twenty years on – a generation later – we again lived in Germany, in Bad Homburg near Frankfurt. This time did not experience that behavior. Of course we were now in our forties, but in addition German culture changed a good deal between the 1960s and the 1980s. German society had become less hierarchical, and young people no longer meekly accepted public correction from their elders.
Despite having read close to a hundred books about Indian culture before moving to New Delhi on our first India assignment, we were deeply shocked that our Indian friends simply ignored the heart-breaking poverty and miserable condition of the majority of their fellow citizens.
Though we lived in India twice we were never able to pretend such conditions didn’t exist. So it was a double shock: First the horror of the dirt and undernourishment, second the ability of most well-off Indians to ignore the plight of the less-unfortunate ones.
Early in my first career I was involved in export sales and marketing, later mostly in global sourcing. It was the latter work that brought me to Cairo for a week in the 1980s to evaluate potential new suppliers for my Chicago-based company.
As my Italian colleague Anita and I were about to check out from our hotel, two officials I knew from the Ministry of Textiles came rushing up to us with an urgent request. “Please, would you kindly stay here one more day,” gasped Hamid, the senior official? “Our First Lady is the sponsor of an orphanage for girls outside Cairo where the young ladies are being trained to be sewing machine operators. Madame Sadat would like you to advise how to bring their garment quality up to world standards as part of Egypt’s export drive.”
Postponing our departure by a day would mean missing a very important meeting in Florence, but the
two Egyptian officials had been helpful in the past and they were obviously desperate to please the big boss’s wife. So I reluctantly agreed and we were immediately bundled into a long, black Mercedes limousine flying the presidential flag. Siren blaring we roared off through the Egyptian countryside scattering chickens, goats and little children.
We found the orphanage/garment factory in an old converted villa and headed for the production line, stopping at the first work station where a 16 year-old girl had just finished sewing a men’s army shirt. The line supervisor, a middle-aged woman, told us proudly “The girls are almost finished with a large order of uniforms for our military.”
To check stitching quality I tugged on a shirt sleeve with moderate force and was surprised when the sleeve easily pulled completely away from the shoulder. Anita made a quick note and we moved on toward the next work station. But before I could pick up another shirt we were startled by the sound of a loud slap followed by a cry of pain. We turned around just in time to see the line supervisor smack the first operator on her other cheek. The teenager was being punished for doing a poor job.
What do you do in such a situation? Anywhere in Europe or North America Anita and I would have instantly stopped the inspection, found the factory manager and reported the abuse. But we did not do that. In many visits to Egypt we had learned enough about the culture to know exactly what would happen to the young girl if we were to make a complaint. In revenge she would have received a much worse punishment than a slap in the face. So the two of us said nothing, just continued the evaluation of the factory. But of course I made very sure not to tug on another sleeve along the production line!
Our follow-up report to Madame Sadat mentioned that we would be sending a production engineer to show how to improve quality and recommended setting the machines to sew all seams with 30 percent more stitches per centimeter. The report also included a strong recommendation to provide management training to the first-line supervisors.